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The Pistons have come a long way since Joe Dumars left and Stan Van Gundy arrived

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Detroit is in its best place (rebuilding) after 12 years of trying (and failing) to be good

Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans will meet for the second and final time of the season this week.

It’s a game that means nothing in the scheme of things, really. The Pistons are one of the worst teams in the league, and another loss is just another lottery combination. The Pelicans are a team on the rise — albeit slower than some expected — and will probably be looking for revenge after dropping a winnable game in Detroit on Valentine’s Day.

It’s also the last time we’ll see old friend Stan Van Gundy this season.

There’s no doubt about Stan’s place in the NBA — he’s a good coach and a better person — but seeing him and the Pellies twice in two weeks has really gotten me thinking about where the Pistons are as a franchise today versus where they were when he took over.

Back then, things were a mess.

They’re still a mess today, just a better kind of mess.

Detroit was coming off a 29-53 season that finally ended the Joe Dumars era because the roster and finances were a mess. It was a bunch of big men (Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond) and inefficient guards (Brandon Jennings, Rodney Stuckey, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) who couldn’t score and definitely couldn’t stop anybody.

Chauncey Billups started for this team — they were going NOWHERE.

Van Gundy came in and slowly got things moving. He made good moves, trading for Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova, and eventually flipping DJ Augustin (and Dumars holdover Kyle Singler) and Ilyasova (and Dumars holdover Brandon Jennings) for bigger swings in Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris, respectively. He also made bad draft picks and the laundry list of bad free agent signings is so long that I’m going to save you the trouble of looking at it.

But, hey, he made the Pistons relevant, if just a moment. It was fun at times, it really was. Like Dumars in those post-Goin’ to Work years, though, he focused on immediate gains and failed to build anything sustainable or creating enough flexibility for himself to keep reworking the roster. Van Gundy locked himself into a roster and the only option available to see another immediate step forward in competitiveness was to trade for Blake Griffin, Griffin’s knees and Griffin’s contract. The same contract Detroit is likely to buy out and eat tens of millions of dollars in doing so.

Stan was fired in 2018 and much has changed since that day.

Griffin — once a legitimate star who served as a modern day Grant Hill in an otherwise meaningless era of Pistons basketball — represents the only remaining link to that era... and he’s hanging on by a thread as he awaits a trade (lol) or a buyout.

Detroit spent six years trying to pick up the pieces after breaking up the core of its latest title team. They followed that with four more years of trying like hell to just make the playoffs under Van Gundy and then Ed Stefanski. Desperate for relevance and to prove all their prior moves weren’t in vain.

But now, three years after Van Gundy’s departure and seven years after Dumars was dismissed, the Pistons are on a different trajectory—the right one. A losing one.

The Pistons are rebuilding... or reloading... or retooling... I don’t remember at this point. Either way, they’re bad with the hopes of build around blue-chip guys like Cade Cunningham and Emoni Bates rather than the Greg Monroes and Rodney Stuckeys.

There are Pistons fans to this day who don’t remember what a good basketball team in Detroit looks like. All they know is failing at being good coupled with a pair of .500 teams that got swept out of the playoffs.

I don’t know if first-year GM Troy Weaver is going to right the ship. I don’t know if Isaiah Stewart is going to be the Detroit Muscle this franchise has lacked since Ben Wallace left. I don’t know if Sekou Doumbouya and Killian Hayes are future stars, nor if they’re even an NBA-caliber starters.

I don’t know if Saddiq Bey is a future 3-and-D staple or just a guy who does good stuff off the bench.

And I don’t know if the lottery gods will shine down upon Detroit when the time comes.

But when I look back at the last 12 years of Detroit Pistons basketball, I feel more confident in this rag-tag group of players—and this still-new front office—than I have in a long time.